Spring practice interview: Eric Berry, SS
For a defensive back, confidence is just as important as quickness and speed.
In Tennessee's defensive backfield, there's no shortage of confidence. But there is at least some measure of surprise.
Even Eric Berry, UT's freshman All-America safety, didn't think he and his fellow newcomers from last year's recruiting class would be making such a significant impact so early in their careers.
"It was pretty much a shock," Berry said. "When I thought about coming here, I was pretty much thinking I'd come and play nickel back. I just wanted to watch the show, and I ended up being in the show.
"It was kind of a big surprise."
For Tennessee, it was a pleasant one.
Last August, Berry figured to be a significant player in the defensive backfield.
But Dennis Rogan? DeAngelo Willingham? Brent Vinson?
Even a crystal clear crystal ball wouldn't have showed those names and faces on the field in crucial moments way back during two-a-days.
"Some of the guys that are back there now didn't even play defensive back starting out," said Rogan, a Class 3A Mr. Football finalist from Fulton High School. "It took a little bit of learning and gelling together, but it's pretty good now."
It's only getting better.
Demetrice Morley returns after a year away from school, which will help ease the loss of All-SEC performer Jonathan Hefney at safety.
By the time fall camp opens in August, cornerbacks Antonio Gaines and Marsalous Johnson - UT's starting cornerbacks in last year's season-opener at Cal - will be back from knee injuries.
All told, the Vols return six players with starting experience in the secondary.
That's not lost on defensive coordinator John Chavis.
"There are some guys that have to prove themselves, but probably as good a situation going into spring practice as we've had in the secondary," Chavis said. "Talent alone isn't going to make you a good player. Working, attitude, learning the system, playing within the system, all those things will make you a good player. Not giving up big plays, and that's where we're going to have to grow back there."
During Thursday's practice, UT coach Phillip Fulmer talked to the defense about the importance of improving on last year's total of 25 takeaways.
"The experience should certainly help the secondary," Fulmer said. "Hopefully it will pay off. Where we really have to improve is in our pass rush. If we can make a quarterback have to work or move or throw a ball on the run or tip a ball or those kind of things, those things (turnovers) go way up. We didn't nearly reach our goal in that area last year, although we did it much better the last part of the season."
Finding that pass rush is a major focal point this spring, as is breaking in two new starters at linebacker.
But a good secondary can go a long way toward masking problems in the front seven.
"You go back and look at several years - and I may get one or two of them wrong - but when Gibril (Wilson), Jabari (Greer) and that group was in here, that was the strength of our football team.
"We were very, very average up front, but it never showed because of what we got done in the secondary. It gives you some flexibility, and it will take some of the pressure off the front and we're going to need that to happen until we get some guys up to speed."
Drew Edwards covers University of Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274.